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The conversation plan is enigmatic. Tweak it, Mr. President

It opens this way. The Nigerian Presidency thrives on a grand form of mystery that sets it apart from the chain of presidencies we have experienced these past decades. Today, issues of national importance are treated as “family affairs”. This treatment prepares grounds for suspicion and depletion of confidence — some critical stuffs are constantly subjected to commodification and conversion for selfish gains by the Aso Villa circus.

With Tuesday’s biggest news item — the president’s right-hand man, Abba Kyari testing positive for the coronavirus, President Muhammadu Buhari and his communication managers dropped the ball again with the mismanagement of information around the development. The managers acted with an upsetting speed. Fake news flourished. Rumour mills had a good outing.

Responsible governments take up conversations with the people as stakeholders and pursue this with gusto and purpose. The handling of information around the coronavirus and other critical matters by the Muhammadu Buhari presidency has failed to match the foregoing so far. Without doubt, this is extremely disappointing.

How did we get here?

Have you considered doing a “headcount” of genuine addresses put forward by this government to speak to the people and the nation? Is it scanty at your end too? This emptiness dates back to May 2015, the entry point for secrecy on a grander scale and the relegation of transparency. Our president would rather not speak to us, except when “it is appropriate”.

Outsiders have manufactured reprimands from the conversation template wielded and pitched by this presidency. Australian-based Islamic cleric, Mohammad Tawhidi explored this route on Friday to call out the president with several insulting adjectives pushing a point: Nigeria has a President. He likes to disappear and finds it stressful to talk to his people.

It is quite astonishing that Buhari’s media team insists the hide-and-seek approach is the best conversation plan you can find anywhere. It is hard to describe the contradictions of this approach using few words and sentences. Keypads would click away with no quick end in sight. In a March 22 interview on ‘Politics Today’, a discussion programme on Channels TV, the president’s most senior media aide, Shehu spoke gladly on the government’s detachment from “showmanship and cheap publicity’’.

I have a reminder. The March 15 Abule-Ado explosion in Lagos inspired a special pictorial situation report delivered directly to the president. Photos of Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu briefing President Buhari made front pages. Pictures from that briefing still hangs nicely on official and personal social media walls. It is clear someone is not being sincere with the concept of showmanship. Perhaps christening that outing and a host of other questionable outings, ‘leadership in motion’ is not out of place. Such contradictions!

Aso Rock Villa, Nigeria’s seat of power, operates with a disturbing governance module similar to that of occult groups. 21st century leadership and governance does not work this way. It still hurts that an outsider mounted a podium created by the inactions of this government to tutor them on what they should give attention to: simple matters as addressing the nation in the wake of a pandemic and offering notes of relief and leadership. The media team, with reference to Bashir Ahmad (new media aide to the President) should go back to the ‘gbas gbos’ and pick this for subsequent conversations.

 It is quite astonishing that Buhari’s media team insists the hide-and-seek approach is the best conversation plan you can find anywhere. It is hard to describe the contradictions of this approach using few words and sentences.

As this piece is being committed to the ritual of scripting and coming to life, #BuhariResign is trending on Twitter. This is an offshoot of justifying loud silence amidst the failures of leadership. Looking away without addressing the flaws that inspired the hashtag in the first instance is not a reasonable thing to do.

Standing up to situations has always been a ‘challenge’ for this government in relation to how the government feels it is making life easy for Nigerians. Rumours and outright lies fester and dump their fate at the gates of the Villa because the government fails to rise to its duty. American philanthropist and scientist, Newton Lee sums the essence of information in two sentences: “Information is power. Disinformation is abuse of power.” Churning crucial information holds the potential of building trust and confidence among the people. But today’s government loathes making trips on that route. To hell with timely information and conversation is at the hems of their garments for everyone to see, home and abroad, including Imam Tawhidi.

Travelling on the route of informing citizens promptly doesn’t make sense to them. It is a taboo. Misinformation passes as a ploy to disarm the people and make them see no wrong in what the government is doing, even when it could be taking dangerous plunges with hostile decisions. Keeping people informed and making governance transparent, in this government’s understanding of things is perhaps primal and belongs to the history books. And the man at the centre of things wants history to be kind to him.

There are numerous templates to put to good use for the task of restoring the country on the right track. The United State Agency for International Development (USAID) has lessons for this government. Today’s holders of power should take time to study the agency’s interpretation of transparency and accountability in governance. They should note this: “The process of governing is most legitimate when it incorporates democratic principles such as transparency, pluralism, citizen involvement in decision-making, representation, and accountability. That interpretation goes further to establish mutualism: “Civil society, the media, and the private sector, have roles and responsibilities in addition to those of the government.”

At a January 2016 meeting with parliamentarians from Ukraine, the Storting (Noway’s supreme parliament) held out openness and trust which this government has failed to appropriately appreciate as “basic principles”. Olemic Thommessen, president of the Storting at the time pushed a simple message I consider relevant to this commentary: “Democracy does not arise on its own. It comes from within, and develops over time. Key principles in any democracy are openness and trust. It is important that politicians refrain from giving themselves privileges that increase the divide between politicians and the people. People must feel that democracy contributes to peace and welfare.”

This moment feels very appropriate for the President to pursue responsiveness and communal needs with an inimitable engagement template. Enough said.

Afeez Odunoye

Odunoye, a social commentator wrote in from Lagos.



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